Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Across The Nightingale Floor

by Lian Hearn


It took me years to get round to this book, because its cover and blurb made me think it wasn't the kind of novel I would enjoy. And by that, I mean I thought it would be more stuffy and slow-moving than it actually is. It's set in a pseudo-Japanese culture, which is to say it's not a historical novel set in feudal Japan, but it borrows very liberally from that culture.

Tomasu is a young man who was living a peaceful life in a mountain village, until men of the Tohan tribe came to slaughter his family and everyone else he knew. The Tohan are out to destroy Tomasu's people, the Hidden. He escapes and is rescued by Lord Otori Shigeru, who gives him the name Takeo. Takeo learns the skills of subterfuge and combat under Otori's protection, and he comes to realise that he has supernatural powers that mark him out even more than his Hidden ancestry.

Both Takeo and Shigeru want to take revenge against Iida Sadamu, a brutal warlord who has invaded Otori lands. Iida sleeps surrounded by a nightingale floor which no normal assassin can cross without being heard.

This is also the story of Kaede, a young woman who has spent most of her life as a hostage. After some unfortunate incidents gain her an unlucky reputation, she is promised in marriage like so much property. It's not a union she wants or has any say in, but what can a woman do in a society that gives her so little power?

There's rebellion, political intrigue, and a fair number of assassins and secret factions, so this novel is awash with excitement and unexpected twists. There are instances of shocking cruelty, but even when brutality is perpetrated for the sake of sadism and spreading terror it never got to the point where I didn't believe in the villains. Perhaps that was because whatever happened seemed historically likely.

Women and people of lower social status spend a lot of time bowing and scraping, and there are some extreme notions of honour. The subservience, and people's willingness to die rather than be disgraced, grated on me. But in some ways that's the point. It's a story that emphasises this cultural difference, with a setting that's feudal and patriarchal in the extreme, but the story is told with a modern, western perspective that holds these attitudes up to scrutiny.

This is a fantasy, but the supernatural elements are quite subtle. The oriental background sets this novel apart from most of the usual stereotypes of epic fantasy. However, plot-wise, it isn't that far removed from the standard hero's journey.

I found Across The Nightingale Floor very compelling, and I felt for Takeo and Kaede. Kaede especially is a spirited character, whilst Takeo is gentle and diffident considering what he has to become. The romantic elements are bittersweet. It's quite suspenseful as we wonder whether the main characters will survive to achieve their political ends and gain some freedom, and this tension never drags. In all, I'm glad I ignored my initial response to the way this novel was presented, and that I made time for this book.

1st February 2014

Book Details

Year: 2002

Categories: Books


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